Why are certain monastic orders so hard?

The Carthusian Order is supposed to be the most austere order in the world, but I also read the same of the Cistercians. I’m sure other orders might have their fair reason to claim to be the most vigorous as well.

But, what makes life in their orders so hard? What parts of their daily living are particularly strenuous? Aside from not eating meat (as is the rule of the Carthusians, and I’m not sure if Carmelites still have that rule in the books), and aside from doing bodily penance as a rule (it seems only the Carthusians still are required to do this, but please do correct me if I’m wrong), how is life in a monastery really tough? How is it so tough that there are postulants whose bodies just can’t take the rigor of it to the point where they have to leave?

There is the prayer, but one can do that outside of a monastery too. Secular Priests are obligated to do the Hours as well.

What makes monks spiritual athletes?

I’m not doubting the assertions of course, but I’m having a hard time picturing life inside of an enclosure and understanding what makes it what it is. I’m also looking for tips on how I could adopt monastic elements into my life for my own spiritual growth too.

A person who joins an austere Religious Order is similar to a person who joins the Special Forces of a military branch (such as Force Recon US Marines or US Navy Seals). They crave the challenge and eagerly accept it. They are not proving anything to the world, but they are challenging themselves.

But you don’t need to be a Navy Seal (or a Carthusian monk) to challenge yourself, or to achieve heroic spirituality. St. Therese became a Doctor of the Church for her teaching of her “little way” - we can achieve heroic spirituality in our mundane, everyday lives. We don’t need to be the Special Forces of the Church.

There is a place for austere Religious in the Church, but there is a bigger place that needs regular (and dependable) Christian soldiers. If you excel in that calling but find yourself wanting more, you should perhaps consider a Religious Third Order. Secular Orders follow a Rule of Life similar to their consecrated counterparts (such as praying the Divine Office daily), but is modified to accommodate secular norms (for example, secular Carmelites (such as OCDS) are not required to abstain from meat, though (of course) they can impose this discipline upon themselves if they wish).

A layperson who seeks to live like a Carthusian monk is destined to fail. Those monks have years of religious formation, surrounded by a religious community and 24x7 support. Even so, most candidates will fail formation and will never take Vows.

I think what makes the Carthusians be perceived as ‘hard’ is the very strict discipline they observe.

For anyone who is intrigued by the lifestyle of a Carthusian monk, I can’t recommend the documentary film “Into Great Silence” highly enough - I originally saw it in the cinema during a documentary season (along with about 6 other people in the entire theatre - a very strange experience!) and I can attest to its spiritual quality. There are practically no words spoken throughout the film which actually makes it much more effective as you essentially get a direct portal into the life of a Carthusian. My only caveat would be not to watch it while sleepy!


Thanks. Yes I’ve seen it, but to me, it makes it feel as if the Charterhouse is a peaceful, prayerful place rather than a vigorous place. I’m trying to understand the vigour and hardships better.

It looked like a place you might want to take a vacation at – but my understanding was that life there was actually supposed to kind of suck.

Why should it ‘suck’?

Continuous corporeal mortification is somewhat frowned upon by the Church.

What Carthusians, Trappists, Cistercians, etc have is a strict penitential and prayerful lifestyle.

Make no mistake: a mental discipline can be every bit as hard, if not harder, than a physical one. While experiencing a physical discipline one’s mind can still be rejecting it. It can be much harder to submit willingly to a strict mental discipline and, for a Carthusian, it’s the entirety of their days, lived in solitude save for rare communal events other than prayers. Even their meals are delivered through a hatch in the doors to their hermitage. Remember, the charism of a Carthusian is to live in a hermitic lifestyle, with little or nothing between them and God. Compared with our own lives, that is an exceptionally ‘exposed’ life, where spirituality is experienced raw. Very few are called to that sort of experience, and fewer still last the course.

I have a difficult time seeing monks as spiritual athletes. What they impose upon themselves is not from God, but a humanistic attempt at satisfying something deep within themselves. Rather than going out and being a light in a fallen world, they physically separate themselves from the world and become useless to the world. This is not what God has intended for those who follow Christ. He wants us, who are followers of Christ, to be “fishers of men”.

Are you suggesting, therefore, that prayer, particularly of monks, is essentially useless self-indulgence?

Again, because it was my understanding that it was supposed to be a life of vigour and hardship. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that aspect of it. I understand the solitude isn’t easy, but I don’t fully comprehend the penitential nature of monasticism.

They sleep on hard surfaces and have to stuff their pillows with straw or sleep with no pillow at all. They have to get up in the middle of the night to pray. But how else is life there physically difficult?

They have to pray all of the Hours. But in what specific ways are their prayer obligations difficult?

Those are the questions I’m asking.

Jesus spent 40 days fasting alone in the wilderness in prayer and contemplation. He later embarked upon a public ministry, and ended his life in martyrdom.

Few people can do the same. Some are called to contemplation, and some are called to public ministry. Then again, some are called to join Our Lord in the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.

Don’t presume to judge those who choose to follow Our Lord’s wilderness example of isolation, prayer and sacrifice. Our Lord defeated Satan himself in this time. Do you REALLY want to claim that people who follow his example are “useless to the world?”

Great movie.

The really strange object I saw in “Into Great Silence” was bottled water. There was a little container of bottled water in one scene and it just blew me away.

I kept thinking how did it get there? Really broke the movie for me.

In their own way, monks are the unsung fishers of men. Monks are the one who spend their lives praying for the world. Their prayers support the larger Christian mission, as if helping pay our bills to God.

Monasteries are also fishers of those people whose lives are such that they would benefit from a life of greater penitence, and that spiritual hunger they have cannot be fulfilled in the secular world, and they go to find God in the enclosure.

The beauty about the Catholic Church is that it’s so big and so diverse that there are so many different, varied areas where it can make its contribution. It has those who go into mission territories and are fishers of men there. It has those in monasteries who are the prayers and fasters. It has those in leadership positions who help govern. It has those in humble positions. The monastic life might not be well-understood to the rest of us, but their jobs are valuable. “By their fruits you will know them.” Monks are credited with saving western civilisation in the dark ages. Monasteries have produced holy men. If they had no real spiritual purpose, perhaps they would not have gone on for 1700 years now.

The microphones are what raised my eyebrow. I thought they lived without electricity.

If your interest in this area is strong, or you are considering such a lifestyle for yourself, or you want to deepen your relationship with The Lord, perhaps it would be worthwhile to make a retreat with such an order and see for yourself.
Most orders welcome retreat-ants into their lifestyle for periods of a few days to a few months. You can live as if you were one of the community, and access a spiritual director while there.

Over a period of time you could compare the life of an austere order like you mention with something totally different like a Fransiscan order - either traditional long established community or a new group like the CFR who are very active in the wider communities where they live and work.

It’s not just the specific scheduled prayer obligations. Anyone can do those and many do follow along with the Liturgy of the Hours while otherwise not being a priest or a religious. What matters here is an attitude of mind and the intent behind living one’s life the way a monk does.

Following your question to its logical end, you are essentially saying that anyone can follow robotic motions and how can that be hard. The trial is in one’s mind as a monk, not in the actions.

I would suggest that you try it and see. Perhaps find a monastery where they offer 40 day retreats, where you live your days with the community in the same way that they do.

See if you can cut yourself off from the world. See if you can cope with the initial boredom as your mind searches for fulfilment and interest. Try to spend all that time that isn’t communal prayer in a search for God, with your mind on Him constantly and without interruption. Try to make every single waking moment and action centred on your Heavenly Father. Not just every three hours in a communal get-together in a chapel, but every single last solitary moment. Every blink of the eye, every instant, every heartbeat… purely dedicated to the contemplation of God. No daydreaming, no recalling past life, no imagining yourself in the arms of another or indulging in a temporal pleasure…

That is discipline. And it’s HARD.

I imagine the microphones were somewhat necessary for the production of the film.

Their life is not physically difficult. The life of a Navy Seal is physically difficult. The life of a monk is spiritually difficult. These are not the same thing.

Monks do not get up in the middle of the night to pray (though they get up really early in the morning, just like Navy Seals).

I remember it being used as part of the monastery, rather than something they put in to catch the monks’ voices by the crew. I think it was in the refectory where they did a reading while the monks ate, and the monk who had to read did it with a mic.

I believe the Carthusians do, actually. Isn’t that what Matins is for them? They get up at midnight to pray?

Fair enough.

Small correction though: there was no crew. The entire documentary was filmed by one man, who had to live in the charterhouse for 6 months. It took him years and years to get the abbot to agree.

Did you know the only interview in the film was with a blind monk - so the one monk who speaks can’t even see the camera that is doing the filming. Poignant, that…

The Hours that used to be in the small hours of the morning were suppressed, I believe, by Pope Paul. However, the Carthusians liturgy was sufficiently ancient that it either predated the one that was suppressed (much like the Ambrosian - Milanese - Rite) and therefore its original exception still stood or it was given an exemption.

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